Published by Landscape Architecture and Urbanism at University of Greenwich, London

Last Landscapes – Arnos Vale

Thinking about your last landscape? Aaron Carpenter reviews ideas and realised designs for cemeteries.

An area of landscape architecture that feels yet to be in braced as a key area of design  and by many newly graduated landscape architects like myself are cemeteries, and places of burial. Cemeteries still seem like an elephant in the room that are hardly spoken about in public or landscape, with many local councils sticking you eventually in an overcrowded field placed behind the dog walking and toilet section of the local municipality park with a few token geraniums doted about.  Due to this recent realisation of how bleak the system is in the UK for modern burials I have started to be become more fascinated by the subject of memorial garden and the design of cemeteries. I first started thinking about how underrated and under valued cemetery design was on a undergraduate uni trip to Skogskyrkogården the woodland cemetery in Stockholm Sweden. Completed in the 1940s, the cemetery is a unique collaboration between two of Sweden’s most famous architects Erik Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. The space appears as a natural forest setting in which the importance of the individual graves are absorbed within the larger impact of the woodland and meadow planting. Then a few years ago I went to a landscape institute run lecture on love it and hate it landscapes, where a group of landscape architects and artists that work within landscape picked two landscapes each to praise and also pick apart. The talk which really stood out was given by John Pegg from Craft:Pegg studios. John spoke about his hatred of cemeteries and the process and expense of a badly designed plaque or grave stone with many memorials being removed after so many years once the lease of the area expires. This lead me to want to explore more memorial gardens.

Image sent from John Pegg from Craft:Pegg studios. Used in his lecture to show poor cemetery design.
Image sent from John Pegg from Craft:Pegg studios. Used in his lecture to show poor cemetery design. A bleak landscape
Arnos Vale
Arnos Vale

Arnos Vale Cemetery is an internationally recognised as one of the best examples of Victorian memorial gardens. The site which covers 45-acres is close to the heart of Bristol, but become a forgotten park due to various private owners who kept it under lock and key with the hope that the land could be used for a housing development. In the 90s 2,000 people protested against any planned development. The land was then sold to the council for £1. The whole site is run and maintained by volunteers and is now a key part of the community with local schools using it as a place to educate children on the importance of ecology and habitats. The site is 175 years old and was established on the 28th july 1837, the first burial was held in 1839. Many of the tombs are grade 2 listed. The site was featured on the BBC program Restoration in 2003 which showcased many of the UK’s lost pieces of architecture in major need of repair. The site received £4.8million in Heritage lottery fund, saving it from the engulfing natural habit which gives the site its unique features.

Arnos Vale
Arnos Vale

Arnos Vale is a beautiful and interesting city park due to its abandonment which gives it the character of a vintage Hammer horror movie. Trees are pushing through graves and turning head stones over, hiding granite columns behind sentinel trees. When walking through the site its hard to know if you are climbing over graves or following a pedestrian route. Every now and again people can be seen removing ivy and climbing plants from old family graves, what makes this cemetery more fascinating for me is I have relatives buried here in amongst the trees. When the day comes I hope there are more cemeteries like Skogskyrkogården or Arnos Vale which beautifully combine a city park and green space with a final resting place.

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Worpole, K., 2003. Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the west. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

A great book to read on this subject is last landscapes; the architecture of the cemetery in the west by Ken Worpole.

Worpole, K., 2003. Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the west. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.


2 responses to “Last Landscapes – Arnos Vale”

  1. We work with a lot of landscape architects, but we’ve never worked on a cemetery project. This was really interesting to read. In the US, most cemeteries are well kept. The older the cemeteries, the more of a tourist attraction they are (see St. Augustine, FL for great examples). So for us to hear the cemetery was only worth £1 is insane? Really? Thank you for posting this article. We really hadn’t put too much thought into cemetery landscape architecture, but we are now.
    -April w/ Delta Fountains

    • Hi thanks for the comment and I’m glad you found it an interesting read. Yes it was only sold to the city council for a £1, but I believe this was a forced sale. As the public protested against any development on the burial area and wanted the cemetery to remain, and open as a park the council told the owners they could never get planning permission on the whole site, decreasing any profit to a developer; also with the prospect of having to pay a large amount for refurbishment (The site received £4.8million in Heritage lottery fund) the owners cut their loses gained £1 and walked away, this is how I believe the cemetery was returned to the city.


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